Robot 6

Six by 6 | Six recent comic strips that died an untimely death

Franklin Fibbs

It’s never been easy to make a successful comic strip, but it’s even harder these days. Shrinking newspaper space, shrinking interest in newspapers — heck a decline in newspapers in general — combined with a general refusal on the part of readers and editors to get rid of moldy, ancient “legacy” newspaper strips (remind me to tell you sometime about what happened when the newspaper where I work tried to get rid of Rex Morgan, M.D.) have resulted in what I can only describe as a hostile environment for new, let alone quirky, work.

More than ever it seems clever, funny strips are rarely given a chance to find an audience, let alone thrive. Here are six vastly under-appreciated strips from recent years that ended far, far too soon.

1. Franklin Fibbs by Hollis Brown and Wes Hargis. One of the more imaginative and original strips of the past ten years, Franklin Fibbs centered around the title character,  a cantankerous old man who told unbelievable whoppers, much to the amusement of his incredibly tolerant wife. Despite displaying a keen wit, the strip failed catch on, only selling to about 25 papers. The pair tried to revamp things by turning Fibbs into a kid and renaming the strip “Little Fibbs,” but to no avail and the strip came to a close in 2006 after a short two-year run. Supposedly the finale was quite inspired, though online samples are hard to find and the strip was never collected into a book. It’s exactly the sort of strip newspaper needed in order to liven up their

Top of the World

2. Top of the World by Mark Tonra. Tonra probably best known as the creator of James, a much-acclaimed, minimalist little boy strip done in a similar vein as Skippy and Mutts. Prior to that however, Tonra created this off-beat strip set in a prison that ran for about two years (1998-2000). It focuses mainly on two nameless convicts that routinely attempt to bust out of jail to little or no avail. It’s the sort of thing . Tonra’s angular, almost geometric line worked really well with the slapstick, rim-shot gags, which would frequently head into absurdest directions. Unfortunately, while readers seemed to love the strip, newspaper editors were less enthused, as Tonra noted in this TCJ interview:

Whenever we got Top of the World in front of readers, they loved it. The hard part was always getting it past the gatekeepers, the editors who bought it in the first place. A lot of them just chickened out. They liked it enough to buy it, but when it came time to put it on the page, they got scared. They couldn’t get past the prison thing. People like to blame the syndicates, but really, it’s the newspapers themselves who are destroying the comics.

Tonra found a bit more success with James, but I kind of miss the frantic antics of Top of the World.

Spot the Frog

3. Spot the Frog by Mark Heath. I’m normally distrustful of cute, but Spot the Frog (2004-2008) was cute in all the right ways, an utterly charming strip about a little frog, his amphibian friends and his human caretaker/owner. Plus, it was genuinely funny. I’m not sure why the strip failed to catch on. It’s exactly the sort of strip that could appeal to a wide variety of readers without pandering or seeming bland. The good news is the strip was collected in two books before its cancellation, Spot the Frog and It’s Hard to Comb a Grass Toupee.

Bo Nanas

4. Bo Nanas by John Kovaleski. Another whimsical funny animal strip, this time involving a big-eared monkey Bo Nanas followed the title character as he tried to make his way through the human world, usually coming a-cropper of some truly bizarre and deluded characters. I thought it was pretty funny (and my daughter agrees with me) but the strip never gained a sizable enough audience and ended in 2007 after a four-year run. Kovaleski has since put out two Bo Nanas collections, has contributed to Mad Magazine, and is currently serializing a webcomic about his adventures as a parent, Daddying Badly.

Lucky Cow

5. Lucky Cow by Mark Pett. The world of a fast-food restaurant seems the ideal place to set a strip (or a television sitcom for that matter), as it certainly lends itself to a variety of colorful characters both behind and in front of the cash register. That seemed to be the general inspiration for Lucky Cow, which began in 2003 and ran until 2008, and dealt with the cheerful owner of a burger franchise, his surly, shiftless daughter, the dim-bulb co-worker and a host of other assorted oddballs. It was a cut above the usual ensemble gag strips but wasn’t able to find a large enough audience for Pett to keep the strip going.

Oh Brother

6. Oh, Brother by Jay Stephens and Bob Weber Jr. It’s often said these days that kids don’t read the newspapers anymore. Exhibit A in that supposition might be this charming strip, created by the brains that brought you Shylock Fox and Jetcat. Oh, Brother was decidedly aimed at a younger audience, but it didn’t talk down to its audience and the fact that it was primarily aimed at the elementary school set didn’t stop it from winning over adult fans either. But, as usual, not enough newspapers opted to pick up the strip and Stephens and Weber decided to close up shop after little more than a year rather than attempt to struggle onward. As with all of the strips listed here, it deserved a better fate.

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Comments

13 Comments

You forgot Boondocks.

It’s always sad when a deserving comic doesn’t make it. I heard somewhere that most new comic strips only last an average of 3 years. The ones that make it past that point are incredibly lucky.
Most of these I’ve never heard of, and I try to pay attention to such things. Bo Nanas is one of my favorites. It’s still on-line at http://www.gocomics.com/bonanas and since the comic ended, they’ve been re-running the old strips. If anyone hasn’t read it, they should check it out.

Many thanks for the tip of the hat.

Believe it or not, I was thinking about Top of the World the other day. I was thinking that I couldn’t remember the artist’s name, the title of the strip, or when it ran. I have an excellent memory for very few things. But I remembered that I loved the style, the juxtaposition of bars and strips, the can-do personalities, the self-winding concept of being trapped, escaping, being caught. If GoComics had been around in ’98, I would have subscribed, maybe sent a fan email. But lacking that, I probably saw the strip in Cartoonist Profiles and thought, “Lucky guy. This strip will be around for ever.” And then it was lost to me in my small New Hampshire town with its one paper, followed, eventually, by Cartoonist Profiles itself.

I mention this because I’m amazed that strips come and go so quietly. You’d think drawing a comic strip was akin to mime, or cutting out paper silhouettes with tiny scissors. I’m a cartoonist, with a passing interest in cartoons and cartoonists, and I still fail to note the debut of most strips, or their departures.

Comic strips are ninjas. Sneaking in and out of newspapers, fighting silent battles, occasionally earning notice if a reader happens to look up just as the strip sails by and briefly reveals itself. But as a rule, if the strip isn’t seen, it doesn’t exist.

When it comes time to vanish, most comic strips are already halfway there.

I love comic strips. It is the only reason that I open the paper in the morning. Having said that, I believe the comic strips are dying. Strips like the six above should be in most papers, but they are not because Peanuts has to be in the paper. I love Shultz’ work, but come on, buy the books, and leave the newspaper alone. I read an interview with Bill Waterson years ago. He suggested that the syndicates print their own strips, with advertising, and sell the pre-printed (on nice paper) material to papers to use as an insert. This probably would have worked 17 years ago (When Calvin and Hobbes was ended), but today a website for new somic strips makes more sense.
If you want to create a new comic strip, try selling it to a Website, not your local paper. More people will read it, and you can own your work, and reap the profits.

I would have added “My Cage” to the list.

In the wake of Bo Nanas, John Kovaleski also teaches a sequential art course at Gettysburg College.

Not really the same thing: the Boondocks comic strip form; wasn’t cancelled by the syndicate; Aaron McGruder decided to end it himself.

(after not returning from his self-imposed hiatus while working on the TV show that is; when he didn’t come back the syndicate did cancel, but it wasn’t due to lack of popularity like the other strips mentioned here)

What Clayton said. Newspapers aren’t going away but they are transforming. Comics won’t be a part of that transformation as the medium itself is going online. The web is the place for new comic strip talent. Creators will need to get savvy with merchandising and interacting with fans. Many people dislike this but that is the reality.

Great article, yet it makes me sad to see these great stips that faded out…

I’m a big advocate of the comic strip medium. Webcomics are no substitute for well-funded, well-curated syndicated strips.

As a personal friend to several webcomics cartoonists, I am pretty certain that the aspects that make webcomics wonderful are not the same business aspects that make syndicated comics wonderful. Business is important and the web isn’t the magic solution for anything lost in print.

Notably, the web allows things to be lost more easily–print makes things tangible, unavoidable. The web allows things which are tough sells to flourish independently under the creator’s own hand. We need both business methods for the comics field to truly thrive.

It is unreasonable to pretend that brilliant artists must also be brilliant businesspersons. Some are, but others REQUIRE the professional infastructure of a syndicate to negotiate deals, advocate on their behalf and sell to clients.

Both forms are valid, neither can replace or stand in for the other.

I’m done.

I’m familiar with several of these great strips. I’ll have to check out the other ones. Another great strip was Citizen Dog by Mark O’Hare. It ran from 1995 to 2001. Thanks for the info!

How can they still be making Beetle Bailey comic strips? Shouldn’t this have been canceled about the same time as “Gomer Pyle” went off the air? I mean how can this set up still amuse anyone? If television was run like comic strips we’d still be watching “I Love Lucy” and “Sgt. Bilko”. Although Fox has run “The Simpsons” about ten years too long since they don’t have to deal with the stars aging so if Lucy and Desi had been robots I guess they’d be in their 62nd year on TV.

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